How I Learn Korean Vocabulary

Learning a wide variety of Korean grammar structures is vital for anyone who wants to achieve a high level of fluency. Different grammar structures can indicate whether a sentence is a command or request, indicate the past, present, and future tenses, indicate expressions of opinion or surprise, pose questions, and so much more.

However!

There are so many times when I just don’t have the right vocabulary to talk about specific items or topics, or when I can’t understand what I’m listening to or reading even though I know the grammar structure being used!

That’s why learning and studying vocabulary has always been my favorite language learning activity. While knowing various grammar structures is certainly important, I’ve always felt that knowing a lot of vocabulary would be more useful for me in the long run. Since I know enough Korean grammar to express myself and get by in my day-to-day life, I prefer to focus most of my energies on acquiring more vocabulary so that I can understand and talk about a wider range of topics.

So today, I’m going to introduce some of my favorite books, apps, and methods for studying Korean vocabulary! There are so many great vocabulary resources out there, so keep reading if you’d like to learn more!


These days, many people in the language learning community advocate the use of native materials to learn vocabulary in context. While I agree that it’s an important method of study and utilize it myself from time to time, I don’t always enjoy it. As someone who likes a more organized approach, learning words in context, while beneficial, leaves me feeling a bit scatterbrained because there usually isn’t a record or easy-to-access catalog of words I’ve encountered that I can reference afterward. Perhaps I just need to develop a better method of managing new words from native texts or invest in a subscription to LingQ, but in any case, I still prefer to learn words in lists and sets.

In my early days of learning Korean, I made so much progress in the language by using flashcards (both physical and digital) to memorize large quantities of words. I still have clear memories of the moments when I learned certain words on a flashcard or flashcard app years ago. Rote memorization may not be a fruitful endeavor for everyone, but if you enjoy a more orderly and methodical approach to learning vocabulary, then don’t let the current trends discourage you from learning and studying in the way that suits you best.

In today’s post, I’ll first introduce you to some of my favorite books for studying Korean vocabulary and explain why I like them. Next, I’ll show you some apps I’ve used over the years to study vocabulary on the go. Finally, I’ll talk about some general methods that I use to learn and study vocabulary that will hopefully help you in your own language studies!


Korean Vocabulary Textbooks

A good vocabulary textbook should present the words in lexical sets, like “school,” “health,” “hobbies,” et cetera. It should also provide example sentences so you can grasp the proper meaning and usage of the word. A great vocabulary textbook will provide additional notes, like synonyms, antonyms, pronunciation, related phrases, and common mistakes. And if it’s got a quiz section, then it’s even better in my opinion.

Here are some vocabulary-specific books that I’m currently using or have used in the past that I would recommend to fellow Korean learners:

1. 2000 Essential Korean Words for Beginners

I’ve had this book for a very long time, but I’m currently working my way through it and collecting all of the words that I don’t know into a binder. I used to write the words on flashcards, but I’m enjoying this binder method more because I can also include example sentences and usage notes for tricky words. The words are chunked into topical chapters and each chapter has a short quiz to test your knowledge. There is also an intermediate version of this book with 2000 more words to learn.


2. Korean Made Easy – Vocabulary

I talked about this book in a recent blog post about my language routine. (I haven’t been sticking to my routine, truth be told, but I am still aiming to finish this book by the end of the year.) Each lesson is dedicated to a single topic and incorporates lots of listening and writing exercises to test your knowledge.


3. TOPIK in 30 Days (Intermediate Vocabulary)

This is another book that I’ve had on my shelf for way too long! I definitely need to study with this at some point. There are thirty “days” of lessons, each with 33 words, that are meant to prepare you for the TOPIK exam in a short period of time. I don’t know if the vocabulary in this book will actually be enough to help me get a high score on the TOPIK, but I still like this book because it has great example sentences, quizzes, word webs, and other useful tips and information. You can check out the audio for all of the words and sentences with this playlist on YouTube.


4. Power Up! Korean Vocabulary

I actually wrote an in-depth review for this book a few years ago, so I will link that for you here if you want to check it out! I went over all of the features and my study method, and also included links to video lessons in that post. I really enjoyed studying with this book because of the inclusion of example sentences and quizzes. I don’t have this book anymore, but I still have the flashcards that I made which I review from time to time.


5. Useful Chinese Characters for Learners of Korean

Since there are so many Korean words that come from Chinese characters, it’s really useful to know some hanja as it will unlock so many more words for you. You can think of them like root words in English. This book is divided into beginner and intermediate sections and teaches you characters alongside their Korean pronunciation, pure Korean meaning, and commonly used words containing that character.


While I haven’t had a chance to try all of the vocabulary books on the market just yet, I’m hoping that the books and features I’ve described will help you pick out the best vocabulary book for you the next time you go book shopping. Even if you choose not to study with a vocabulary-specific textbook, any integrated/comprehensive Korean textbook (books that teach a combination of vocabulary, grammar, reading/writing/listening skills, and cultural tidbits all in one) that provides clearly distinguished vocabulary lists for each chapter is much easier to learn from (in my opinion) than more grammar-focused books that expect you to pick out the new words yourself without any proper introduction, so keep that in mind.

Korean Vocabulary Apps

These days, it seems like there is a new Korean language learning app coming out every other day. While it’s great to see how popular the Korean language is becoming, it can be really overwhelming to sift through them all, especially when so many seem to prioritize style over substance. I like to check out the app store every so often and test out new Korean language learning apps, but it’s rare for me to find an app that suits my learning style and my budget.

When it comes to apps with premade vocabulary lists, so many of them have their content locked behind paywalls, or only provide shoddy computer-generated translations. It’s been tough to find good Korean vocabulary apps, but I think I’ve managed to compile a list of the best ones on the market. For apps with premade vocabulary lists, I prefer apps that don’t require a subscription to unlock the content, so every app that I have listed below is free or affordable to use.

Here are some of my favorite Korean language learning apps with premade vocabulary lists:

1. Tobo Korean

I recently talked about this app and how I use it in my language routine blog post. This app has 70 premade vocabulary decks, with 50 words each, with a spaced-repetition quiz function and gamified reviews. The flashcards have illustrations and audio, which makes the learning process more enjoyable. Fair warning: some words are occasionally inaccurate, but most of the time the definitions are correct. If I’m ever suspicious, I’ll look up the word in Naver Dictionary and report the inaccurate card. Even with the occasional wrong word, this is my current favorite Korean vocabulary app. It’s free to use with ads, but you can subscribe monthly to remove them.


2. 워드퍼즐

This is a Korean word cross puzzle game that I like to play from time to time. It is aimed at Korean audiences so the entire app is in Korean, which might make it difficult for beginners to navigate. The great thing about this app, however, is that they provide definitions and example sentences for every word that comes up in the puzzles. You can save words you want to study later in a handy list! It’s free to use, but you can pay a low, one-time fee to remove ads if you’d like.


3. 한자어 Builder

This completely free app generates short hanja quizzes (10 words at a time) to help you deepen your knowledge of Korean vocabulary. The functionality is quite limited, but there are almost no other apps on the market aimed at Korean language learners who want to learn hanja! With this app, you can start to familiarize yourself with hanja in a leisurely way.


4. TOPIK Vocab – Korean TOPIK Exams + Vocabulary

I very recently discovered this app, so I haven’t had a lot of time to test it out yet, but it seems like it has potential. In one section of the app, you can test yourself with reading questions from previous TOPIK exams. In another section, you can study TOPIK-level words in sets of 15 by viewing lists and flashcards, and by completing spelling tests and multiple-choice tests. This app is free, but there is also a paid version with no ads for ₩4,500.


Honorable Mention: Kmaru

This last app is one that is very old and no longer available as it went defunct several years ago, but I wanted to mention it because it helped me learn so many words when I first came to Korea in 2015! It was a great flashcard app that had native-speaker audio, pronunciation guides for each word, and example phrases. It also quizzed you on word meaning, pronunciation, and listening. You can visit the old Kmaru website to check out some of their online content, but it’s not quite as user-friendly as this old app used to be. Thankfully, I never deleted it from my old iPhone 4S, so I recently booted it up and have started using it again!


Aside from apps with premade vocabulary lists, there are also apps that allow you to create your own digital flashcards from scratch, or to study decks that other users have made. The most popular platforms that come to mind are Quizlet, Anki, and Memrise. I used Memrise when I was taking the KIIP courses a few years ago because there were decks made by other users for those courses. It was a handy resource that I utilized back then, but truth be told, neither Quizlet, Anki, nor Memrise really suit me: something about Quizlet’s interface is offputting to me, Anki’s complexity and clunky design are really unappealing, and using Memrise gets dreadfully boring for me after a while. I know that these apps are all really beloved in the language learning community, so don’t let me stop you from giving them a try if you’d like!

Since the popular flashcard platforms don’t really fit my learning style, I’ve had to seek out some other alternatives.

Finding a flashcard app that works for me has been surprisingly difficult. I really like apps that allow you to create subcategories but still test all cards at once, and I prefer if the UI design is appealing and simple. Below are a few custom digital flashcard apps that I found that seem to fit the bill. I haven’t used them for very long, but just based on their features and my first impressions, I think that they would be great apps to use for anyone looking to study Korean vocabulary in a digital flashcard app.

1. Lexilize Flashcards

This flashcard app is one of the best I’ve come across. With this app, you can create flashcards with audio and images from the web (instead of sourcing images yourself). You can organize your cards into folders and subcategories and nest them within each other, which is great for when you want to keep cards from a particular book together but also want to break them down by chapter and then by lesson, etc. They have a variety of different review modes to keep studying interesting, and they utilize spaced repetition. To enjoy all of these features, however, you do have to pay for a premium subscription (they have monthly, yearly, and lifetime plans). I was paying for Premium for a few months (about ₩5,000) but ultimately canceled my subscription because I just wasn’t utilizing this app often enough to justify the cost. But it was a good flashcard experience while it lasted.


2. Awesome Flashcard Maker

Here is another flashcard app that utilizes spaced repetition and the Leitner Box method, but is very simple in design. You can’t nest as many folders as you can with Lexilize, but you can make “groups” with categories inside them, and you can customize how many Leitner boxes you’d like to utilize for spaced-repetition review. The flashcards themselves are very easy to customize. You can adjust the font size, color, and add images and subtext to both sides, and enable text-to-speech. You can also change the app’s theme color, which is a nice bonus. There are three review modes: cards, typing, and multiple-choice. AFM is free to use, but for a one-time fee of ₩5,000, you can remove ads and study offline.


3. VoCat – My Own Vocabulary

VoCat has many functions that are similar to AFM but with a cute, cat-themed design. While you can’t add images to these cards, you can add multiple definitions, descriptions, or example sentences, as well as pronunciation notes. You can also mark words as “familiar” or “unfamiliar” and choose which categories of words to include in your vocab reviews, though there is no spaced-repetition functionality. You’ll have to take initiative and decide how often you need to study. Like AFM, there are three review modes, plus a “blinker” mode where you can simply watch and listen to the words over and over. You can watch a 30-second video ad each day to remove banner ads for 24 hours.


Hopefully, I didn’t overwhelm you with all of these different app recommendations, but I wanted to share as much helpful information about Korean vocabulary apps as I could! At the end of the day, it’s all about finding what works best for you and your wallet. I hope that at least one of the vocabulary or flashcard apps that I’ve mentioned will help you on your way to widening your Korean vocabulary!


My Study Methods

Choosing study materials, whether they be textbooks, apps, or native materials, is obviously the crucial first step in trying to acquire more vocabulary. But having the best resources in the world won’t mean much if you don’t have effective study methods that will help you learn the content of those resources!

Over the years, I have developed a few methods for studying vocabulary. Nothing groundbreaking, to be sure! My methods might not be the most efficient or modern, but I’ve found what works for me. And nothing is set in stone – I am free to change up my methods or try new techniques as the mood strikes, and so are you!

Below, I have outlined four important methods that I use to learn and study new Korean vocabulary. While the methods I enjoy using might not work for everyone, I wanted to share them anyway in case they help someone else in their language learning journey.

1. Make and Study Flashcards

Paper flashcards are a classic study tool! In high school, my friends and I used flashcards to study for finals, and as an adult, I’ve utilized them to boost my Korean vocabulary and to prepare for KIIP exams.

There is something really satisfying about creating your own cards. Maybe it’s the act of writing each word and definition, or the tactile feeling of flipping through cards on a ring, but I really enjoy studying with paper flashcards. You can carry them on the go, or keep them in convenient places around the house to remind you to study. And the great thing about paper flashcards is that they don’t drain your phone battery or take up storage space on your devices, and they can never accidentally get deleted.

Many people’s main objection to paper flashcards is that they take a long time to make. It’s true – making a deck of flashcards yourself is a time-consuming endeavor. But the physical act of writing out the words and their meanings will ultimately help you to remember them better. And if you take good care of them, well-made flashcards can last a really long time.

Here is my preferred method of making and studying with paper flashcards:

  • First, I write the Korean word on the front and the English meaning on the back. Depending on the size of the card, I might add additional information like part of speech, example sentences, or the page number of the textbook I got it from.
  • Once I’ve completed making the cards, I start from the beginning and begin testing my memory.
  • If I make a mistake as I’m flipping through the cards, then I will start back at the first card and repeat the process until I can get through the entire deck without any mistakes.
  • Then, I go through the deck one more time to make sure that I really know the words.
  • For more of a challenge, you can shuffle the order of the cards or study them back-to-front, but I tend to prefer to keep my flashcards in order.

If studying with paper flashcards on your own feels a little tedious or boring, then recruit a friend or family member to study with you. It’s always way more fun to be quizzed by others, or better yet, to quiz others, than to study on your own. You can also use the cards for dictation practice by having someone else read the words from your cards aloud while you write them on a sheet of paper.

Paper flashcards are really versatile and useful, even in the digital age, so give them a try!

2. Write Vocabulary in a Notebook or Binder

Aside from paper flashcards, I also like to make vocabulary notebooks and binders. As with making flashcards, writing out the words and definitions by hand helps me to remember the words better. I’m also a bit of a stationery junkie, so I love being able to use my stash of papers, pens, markers, and other stationery odds and ends to make visually appealing note pages.

My Vocabulary Notebook: On the left, you can see a page from my vocabulary notebook from when I was taking the KIIP Level 4 course. Our teacher provided vocabulary lists (without translations or definitions) for each lesson and it was our responsibility to look up each word and know them before the start of class. I would copy the lists into a Cornell-style notebook, look up the definition, and then practice writing the word in Korean over and over. In class, we would discuss all of the words one by one, and I would make notes about them in the margins of my notebook.

I don’t keep a running vocabulary notebook like this anymore, but as a KIIP student, it was a valuable tool that kept me organized and on top of the course material. Nowadays, I prefer storing vocabulary in a binder because I can easily add, remove, and rearrange the pages as I please.

My Vocabulary Binder: On the right, you can see a page from the vocabulary binder that I am currently using to take notes on 2000 Essential Korean Words for Beginners. I’m really enjoying this new process! For any unknown vocabulary words that I encounter, I will write the word and part of speech in the left column, and to the right of each word, the definition and an example sentence. Then I’ll highlight the words in the example sentences to make them stand out more. If I have any additional notes about a particular word, I’ll write them in the bottom section.

I am also using Cornell-style paper in this binder because I think it is the best layout for organizing vocabulary. This notetaking format will allow me to easily cover one side of the page if I want to quiz myself in the future. I also have a table of contents at the front of the binder so that I can easily refer to a particular topic whenever I need to.

Keeping lists on paper may seem a little old school in this digital age, but never underestimate the power of muscle memory! Especially for those who are visual or kinesthetic learners, writing words in a notebook or binder might be the way to go.

3. Dig a Little Deeper

Textbook authors and app developers are human, and sometimes there are errors in the translation or a shallow explanation that doesn’t convey the full meaning of a word. That’s why it’s so important to take the extra step of looking up words yourself as often as you can.

When I come across new vocabulary words, whether that be in a textbook or a list of words on an app, I rarely take them at face value. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but there have been many times when I encounter a new word and instead of just going with the translation provided in a book or app, I will look it up on Naver Dictionary to make sure it’s correct. Most of the time, it is actually correct, but once in a while, I will find an error! So it’s really important to double-check, especially if it’s a word you are unfamiliar with.

I also like to look up tricky words on Naver because sometimes there is a grammatical point that influences a word’s usage that is important to know but isn’t discussed in a textbook or app. Researching a word’s part of speech, related terms, and colloquial usage helps me to deepen my understanding of new words that I learn, and I remember them better as a result.

Since I’m married to a Korean person, I also have the privilege and convenience of being able to ask my husband about the new vocabulary that I’m learning. I can ask him things like, “Is this word commonly used in everyday conversation? Am I pronouncing it correctly? What’s the difference between this word and that word, and when would you use each? How would YOU use it in a sentence?” Getting a native speaker’s perspective is so helpful and interesting, and I am able to learn more about Korean culture at the same time. If you have the chance to consult with a native speaker about new vocabulary (and they are willing to help you), definitely take it!

4. Use New Words in Conversation

The more I study vocabulary, the more I realize that anytime I get a chance to use a new word, I should take it. This is one of the most important things that a language learner can do when trying to develop a wider vocabulary.

It’s easy to get caught up in the process of hunting down the perfect vocabulary textbook or app, and then the process of collecting and cataloging words. Trust me, I myself get obsessed with these processes and sometimes forget to move on to actually studying. But the whole point of doing all of this work is to be able to recognize and use a wider variety of words in our daily lives!

I’d like to tell you a little anecdote about the word 둥지, meaning “nest.” I came across it while using the Tobo Korean app, but I didn’t think it was a particularly useful word to know, so I kind of ignored it and moved on. But not long after, while on a trip to Gyeongju, my husband and I encountered huge swarms of crows and there were large nests in several trees along the road. At that moment, I couldn’t remember how to say “nest” in Korean, even though I had technically learned it already. Then, a few weeks later at my parents-in-law’s house, they showed us a nest that a bird was building on their balcony. There were no eggs in it yet, but it was getting huge! On another day, my husband pointed out a large nest in a tree next to our apartment building and he wondered if he should move his car from underneath it. And just yesterday, my father-in-law called to tell us that there were now seven little blue eggs in the nest!

둥지, 둥지, 둥지, everywhere I went! It turns out, it was a useful word! And the more I’ve used it in various conversations over the past several weeks, the better I’ve been able to remember it. Now that I know the word, I like to point out birds’ nests in trees whenever I see them. 😁

That’s why I think it is so important to incorporate new vocabulary words into conversations, whether it be via text message or speech. Using new words in conversation can be a little intimidating at first – I know I always feel a little embarrassed when I make a pronunciation mistake or use a word incorrectly. But the more you use words in their appropriate contexts, the better you will be able to remember and recognize those words going forward. When you are finally able to incorporate what you’ve learned into a conversation, it’s a really gratifying experience.


I hope that this blog post has helped you discover new resources and study techniques that will help you to improve your Korean vocabulary!

Let me know in the comments, which books or apps are you most eager to try out? And if you have your own recommendations for resources or study methods, please share them!

Thanks for reading!

One thought on “How I Learn Korean Vocabulary

  1. That’s a funny anecdote about 등지. I had a similar experience with 입력. I wondered how often I would actually need the word “input”, but then I coincidentally started watching the drama I’m not a Robot, and they were using the word all the time to talk about giving the robot data. 입력 입력 입력 입력 입력! I’ve never once forgotten the word thanks to that barrage of exposure right after learning the definition haha.

    Liked by 2 people

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